Going to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) LA Summer Conference is like injecting your brain with a year’s worth of master classes on craft all in a brief three-day weekend. Some don’t make through and their brains explode. (That’s probably not true.) I love going for the knowledge and for the inspiration that comes from being around fantastically creative people who understand me and my obsession with story.
Although I’ve been doling out the good stuff in manageable bits on my own blog, you’re going to get the crash course. Hang on to your butts, here we go!
TOP FIVE FAVORITE IDEAS THAT I TOOK AWAY FROM THE CONFERENCE
- GREAT IMAGINATIONS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD – Meg Rosoff, author of HOW I LIVE NOW and THERE IS NO DOG, gave a graphic rendering of the fairy tale GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS to show how
the reality policesome child behavioral experts would prefer stories be told because, “Imaginations are dangerous”. Children shouldn’t read about princes turning into frogs, because the odds of that actually occurring is statistically too improbable. Meg discussed the many ways these so-called experts were missing the point, but even better was this advice given to her daughter who was studying physics and worrying about being smart enough. Meg said to her: “You may not ever be a genius, but you read books. You know about plot, character, stories. You know about letting your unconscious mind follow things to new conclusions. Reading books strengthens imagination and lateral thinking. A good scientist needs imagination. Reading books may even make you a GREAT scientist.” And furthermore, “Imagination and the ability to tell a story will make anyone better at anything, with the possible exception of politicians and accountants.”
- YOUR GREAT IDEA IS ALREADY INSIDE YOU – Stephen Chbosky, author of PERK OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, talked about writing your own timeless classic during his keynote address. He discussed how creative types have difficulty recognizing what’s beautiful or transcendent in themselves. How we as writers don’t always recognize the great ideas we have inside us. That’s why when you’re trying to find your great story, you should write down every idea you have and then share that list of ideas with the people closest to you, who genuinely want you to succeed. Everyone who reads the list will gravitate towards one or two ideas. Once you have your idea, you should take the time to make it great. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block; you’re just editing too early.”
- BEST WAY TO CREATE AUTHENTIC CHARACTERS IS TO STEAL THEM – Maggie Stiefvater, author of the SHIVER trilogy and my personal favorite THE RAVEN CYCLE, gave an excellent talk on building characters. She considers herself a better thief than writer. She steals people from real life to create her characters. “When stealing from people in real life, there is a process of subtraction.” She takes something from the real world, hammers it into something else, and makes it something of her own. She used to steal the surface of a person, but that was bad thievery. “I need the soul. It’s about the why.” The way she creates characters begins with stealing first impressions of people, like how you think of them initially upon first meeting. A good way to do this is by eavesdropping. She does this a lot. When observing people, she’s always looking for patterns/clues to show how this person views the world. If she does her thieving well, then adds details that are true and specific, she gets well-rounded, believable characters. “I want my stolen truths to be real, but in a way only I could tell them.”
- EVEN SEASONED PROFESSIONAL WRITERS HIT THE CREATIVE WALL – What surprised me was this seemed to almost be a recurring theme throughout the weekend – or maybe I was more attuned to this message because I needed to hear it. From Judy Blume to Tomie de Paolo, speakers shared stories of times when their ideas dried up. It was Sharon Flake‘s tale that captured my attention the most. This award-winning author of THE SKIN I’M IN told of her mercurial rise to success and how that made her fall even harder. Magic can give you a false sense of confidence, she said of how her writing career began. The first editor that read her manuscript, bought it. When she began her sixth book, she received some unexpected notes that shook her and cracked her foundation. For the first time, an editor didn’t like her work. She asked, “What if I’ve lost my gift?” As she continued to struggle with negative thoughts and a story that just wouldn’t work, she never realized how much of her self image was tied up in being an author. “Who am I, if I’m not writing?” After completely wrecking the book, she finally decided to set it aside and begin another project – a collection of short stories. She figured she could write one short story at a time as opposed to an entire novel. When it was finished and she saw the proofs, she cried. (On a side note, that book, YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ME, was one of the first I read when I came back. It was outstanding.)
- JUDY FREAKING BLUME!!! – I know that’s not really an idea, but Judy Blume ended the conference in such a spectacular way by just being herself. She talked about how she was far from a brave or courageous child, except inside her head. “I was brave in my writing in a way that I wasn’t in my life.” She told us to not let anyone discourage us. If they try, get angry, not depressed. She received a rejection once that said, “You’re a nice girl, Judy, but you can’t write.” She thought, “He doesn’t know what I have inside.”She talked about being physically ill during her twenties until she released all of that creativity. “Writing saved my life.” Tears were shed, experiences shared. Ah! the feels! In the end, Judy said that although she was meant to inspire us, that we actually are the ones that inspire her.
If that isn’t enough motivation for you to invest in yourself and get thee to a conference, any conference where you can soak up the literary love, I don’t know what will. To read more tales from the SCBWI LA conference, feel free to follow my blog as I continue my series of posts throughout September.